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Review: ‘The Altered History of Willow Sparks’

The Altered History of Willow Sparks

The Altered History of Willow Sparks
by Tara O’Connor
Oni Press, $19.99
Ages 13 and up

The classic idea of a magical transformation, and the lesson of being careful what you wish for, is revisited in this high school-set graphic novel that does a terrific job with individual moments but doesn’t fully assemble them into a coherent whole.

Willow has acne, one good friend, and a part-time job at the local library. Both she and her friend are bullied by the pretty, popular crowd, a situation Willow is able to change when she discovers a secret basement in the library. She finds a book with her name on it, and when she writes in it, her sentences come true. This seems like an easy way to make her life happier, but of course, there’s a cost.

The art is strong and distinctive, with solid black lines, yet reminiscent of other YA graphic novelists, particularly Faith Erin Hicks (Friends With Boys), which should provide comfort to readers looking for a next read. The frequent focus on emotional reactions and facial expressions feels like manga was an influence.

The Altered History of Willow Sparks

The early scenes do an excellent job of capturing the setting and the many awkward, annoying, and even dangerous encounters Willow has to survive. Unfortunately, once the transformation happens, a third of the way in, events start moving more quickly, with less detail and more surprises to the reader, without previous story grounding. The main “mean girl,” specifically, is more of a plot device than a believable character.

Willow’s desire to distract attention from her sudden changes causes a rift with her friend, who mostly exists to both sound a warning about not trusting magic changes and listen to another friend’s coming out, which isn’t connected to the rest of the story. The resolution similarly feels dropped in, with Willow regretting her actions not because of what they mean or how they affect others but only because of magical side effects.

Willow’s transformation brings her positive attention from a popular boy, but she begins seeing her veins turn to ink. That’s a nicely visual metaphor for the creeping corruption her power brings. It’s distracting, however, that readers don’t know what, if any, changes anyone else will make. Willow herself is tricked into a necessary apology instead of realizing the need for a change of heart. There’s no recompense to anyone’s bad (and sometimes near-criminal) behavior, either, which is unsatisfying.

There’s a great deal of potential in this fantasy, but it doesn’t come together as cleanly as hoped, with things happening too fast without enough space to have true emotional effect.

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Johanna About Johanna

Johanna Draper Carlson has been reviewing comics for over 20 years. She manages ComicsWorthReading.com, the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres of comic books, graphic novels, and manga. She has an MA in popular culture, studying online fandom, and was previously, among many other things, webmaster for DC Comics. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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